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Friday, January 22, 2016


Poaching is the practice of one player moving into his partner's court to return a ball that would normally be taken by the player's partner.  The poach generally takes place at the kitchen line but could occur anywhere on the court.  There are two kinds of poaching - planned and unplanned.  (Some would agree that there are two kinds of poaching but would change the labels to "good" and "bad".)  A poach is shown below.  The player starts in the left service court and returns the shot after crossing into the right court in front of his partner.

Poaching is a strategy that is used to surprise opponents and to gain an advantage in the rally.  There are two circumstances in which poaching should be used.
  1. When one player is much better than his partner.  In a competitive match, opponents will exploit the weaker player.  Such is the life in tournaments where only a win will allow teams to advance to the next round.  In these cases, the weaker partner may be the recipient of shot after shot after shot.  When a discernible pattern can be seen, the stronger (and ignored) partner may jump into the play and cut off a ball intended for the weaker player.  
  2. When a repetitive pattern is seen and can be anticipated.  Even when a partnership is even in strength, either player may jump in front of his partner to take a shot he properly anticipates.  This commonly happens when the poacher's partner is back near the baseline, such as after a return of serve.  The opponents may develop a pattern of returning the third shot hard to the service returner to keep him back.  The partner at the service line may intercept that return when properly anticipated.
A planned poach is part of the strategy discussed off the court prior to the match. Communication at the start of the rally is also key.  A planned poach will be signaled by the poaching player before the serve.  Partners should develop a signaling system for the poaching player to indicate his attempt.  A common signal is a hand behind the back - with an open hand indicating a poach and a closed fist meaning either a fake or staying in position.  Remember that signaling should done throughout the match.  Signaling only when wanting to poach would be quickly learned by opponents.  In addition, it is a good idea to fake a poach occasionally.  Using a staying in place signal prior to a fake means a partner will not be among those falling for a fake.  Examples of poach / stay signals are below.


Part of the strategy may include luring the opponents into a shot that can be poached.  If Player A at the kitchen line signals for a poach, his partner (Player B) may stay back at the baseline after making his return.  This likely will result in the opponents returning to Player B and allowing Player A to try to poach.

A successful poach will, in most cases, result in a winning shot.  If it does not, the poaching team could be in trouble as they are out of position.  A typical poach requires the poacher to move several steps and his position must be covered by his partner as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Player A moves to his right to poach.  Player B moves in and then left to replace Player A's spot.  Player A can return the poach to either front corner for a winner but a return to the left side means his partner must quickly move to cover that sideline.

A poach that requires moving a very short distance allows the poacher (Player A) to try to return to his court. But this return move likely means his partner is uncertain about which court to cover. That is the reason why Player B first moves in and split steps after his return.  If he sees that Player A will get back to his original spot in the left court, Player B can continue to the kitchen or stop in place as necessary.

An unplanned poach is executed as opportunity arises in the midst of a rally. An opponent's shot might float too much toward Player A, who would have to hit a backhand volley.  Player B could cross in front of Player A and hit a stronger forehand winner.  Another unplanned poach might result if a player has momentum from one shot carry him in front of his partner to make a poach.

Poaching should generally be done on the forehand side.  First, the forehand is generally the stronger side for most players.  Second - and more importantly, the ability to reach a greater distance with the paddle arm is a major factor as the poach must be made once committed.  The poacher's partner is likely on his way to to the other side of the court and will not be able to make a return.  

The timing of a poach is critical to its success.  When a poacher moves from his position too early, the opponent may hit into the vacated spot for a winner.  When a poacher moves too late, he may not be able to get to the return as shown below (the ball is in the red circle), also resulting in an opponent winner.  A poacher should wait until the opponent is committed to a shot and then begin to move quickly.

The use of poaching may be rare or frequent depending on the opponent. Regardless of the frequency, poaching should an element of every game. Predictability is less desirable than unpredictability.  An occasional poach keeps the returner honest in that he will need to make a lower and harder return than he would otherwise have to make. The element of unpredictability alone raises the odds of return errors by opponents.  Frequent poaches for winners can destroy opponents' confidence.  Do not ignore this part of the game.

A short video from called Poaching is below that shows examples of poaching in various situations.

The entire discussion to this point has been about play in competitive matches. Proper etiquette in social play would be to avoid poaching unless both partners agree to do it. Social play is for fun and experience.  It is not necessarily about winning.  A weaker player will not improve if their partner takes balls in the player's court.  The term "poaching" is derived from its meaning that it is stealing the ball from your partner.  That can be good or bad, depending on the situation and communications between partners.

Finally, Mullet Mike shows you how not to poach in a video called I like my Pickleball poached.


  1. Replies
    1. No. The serve must only be returned by the proper player. Rule 4.N.1:

      Receiver Faults. It is a fault against the receiving team
      resulting in a point for the server if:
      4.N.1. The incorrect player returns the serve.